Tactics: What Is Playing Out From The Back?

Everybody’s doing it, here’s how

How does the ball get into the goal? It’s a rudimentary question, yet the answers are almost limitless. For a game as unpredictable as football, many coaches and tactical minds are constantly searching for control. In the case of creating goals, the idea is to find routes to the goal that are controllable and repeatable. This quest has led to the common adaptation of “playing out from the back.” But what actually is that? 

Playing the numbers

A while ago, a glorious compilation went viral of 1970s goalkeepers booting the ball long. Originally, a goalkeeper’s value was defined by their ability with their hands – not their feet. 

That changed, largely as a result of math. When matching up against your opponent, the two goalkeepers have to be ready to defend the goal at all times. Therefore, although the game is 11v11, tactically you’re usually playing 10v10. 

Around the 2000s, coaches realized that, if your goalkeeper could play a part in your gameplan with the ball at their feet, you would have 11v10 in your favor. 

Build-up play also relies on ball-playing defenders. Previously defenders would simply be tall, strong, and aggressive against the ball – and keep things simple off it. The famous quote “You get the ball and then give it to someone who can play football” typified the role of the defender. 

The problem with this is, that if your approach is always to go long, there’s about a 50% chance of success. Half the time, you’re just kicking the ball back to the opponent. Hardly controllable or repeatable. 

Having 11 players who can all pass the ball creates the possibility of getting the ball deep and playing your way up to goal – leaving the opposition helpless in your wake. Hence, playing out from the back. 

How do teams do it? 

There are a variety of ways to play out for the back, all depending on your opponent. 

For example, many teams want to get the ball back as quickly as possible – so that they can create a goal themselves. 

In order to do so, they will press their opponent – chasing them down and putting pressure on them, forcing them into a mistake.

READ MORE: What Is Pressing? by Harry McMullen
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To build up against a press, you have to understand how you’re being pressed – and identify a solution. 

For example, let’s say you’re playing a 4-3-3, but your opponent is playing a 4-4-2. 

One common solution is to split your two center backs, with your goalkeeper in the middle – forming a 3. This allows your fullbacks to push high and wide, with a midfielder dropping in behind their front two. 

This way, you have a 3v2 against their front two and a 3v2 in midfield. You can easily bounce the ball through the opposition pressure…

…and get your attacking players into 1v1 situations.  

If you’re playing against a front three, you can have a second midfielder drop behind them. That way the goalkeeper can pass through the attacking line. 

As the opposition midfield gives chase, the ball out wide to the full-back becomes available. 

Now again, you have the ball behind the opponent’s pressing unit and options to create a chance. 

What if your opponent doesn’t press? 

Some teams prefer to defend by dropping into a compact defensive block. This closes the center of the pitch near their goal – the part of the pitch that is easiest to score from. 

The attacking team must construct an attack deliberately whilst playing out, rather than responding to the press. 

Goalkeepers and defending play their roles here. But the real protagonist is the pivot player. Usually a midfielder, the pivot player positions themselves inside the opponent’s block. 

This means that, when they receive the ball, they are surrounded by opponents. If an opponent successfully steals the ball from the pivot player, they will be able to counterattack dangerously. 

But, as the opponents break cover to try stealing the ball, space opens up inside the block. The pivot player can dribble into these gaps, or their teammates can make runs for the pivot player to pick out. 

If the pivot player can make this pass, the opponent’s block is exposed, and the attacking team can create an opportunity to score. 




Play it back

Playing out from the back then is the art of playing the ball from back to front, solving the opponent’s defensive approach, in order to get a chance to score.

Next time you see a goalkeeper taking their time on the ball, see if you can spot the team’s build up shape. If all goes to plan, they’ll soon be bearing down on goal. 

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